Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Quote Of The Day: The Unlikely Possibility of Possibilism On Time

There are three main theories on time: presentism, possibilism, and eternalism. This is the difference between the three:

Presentism: Only the present moment exists
Possiblism: Only the present moment exists and everything that has happened in the past
Eternalism: Every moment exists

Visually it looks like this:

Presentism entails that the future and past do not exist; possiblism entails that the present and past still exist and is therefore commonly referred to as the "growing block theory;" eternalism entails that all moments in time exist such that the universe can be viewed as an eternal block, and is therefore commonly referred to as the "block universe."

Eternalism is the dominant view in science. In Relativity and the Nature of Spacetime Vesselin Petkov drives the point, arguing about the unlikely possibility of possiblism:

I think the arguments against the growing block universe indicate that it is very unlikely that such a view will be an adequate representation of the world. On the other hand, all arguments against the four-dimentionalist view are based on the sole fact that we are aware of ourselves and the world only at the constantly changing moment 'now'. But this fact, as we saw in Chap. 3, has two logically possible interpretations, one of which is fully consistent with Minkowski's view. That is why the four-dimentionalist view is the most serious candidate for correctly representing the world." (p. 167)

I agree with the consensus. I think eternalism best fits the data and that would mean we are living in a block universe. The future of every single moment from our subjective perspectives in the spacetime block already exists and there's nothing we can do about it. I know this can be mind blowing and very difficult on the ego. We like to think of the future as a wide range of possibilities. Believing our futures to be locked into place may cause a mild to severe existential crisis. It requires a certain degree of philosophical investigation and knowledge to handle. But I do think that understanding this and seeing the universe this way has as much potential as a paradigm changer as did heliocentricism, evolution, and the end of libertarian free will.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What The Hell Is Going On With CJ Werleman?

Apparently, a rift has opened up and deepened among liberals over the way we view Islam. On the one side, some liberals think that Islam is a religion of peace and that criticizing it offends millions of Muslims and amounts to racism, or anti-Muslim bigotry. On the other side, another group of liberals stands opposed to any ideology or religion that flagrantly violates basic liberal values, and they recognize Islam as doing so. This rift became shockingly apparent on Real Time with Bill Maher last year in a debate over Islam between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck. (I commented on it here.) I've made my views clear that I'm on team Harris. He recognizes, like all informed and rational people, that the Islamic religion contains many immoral prescriptions and that this makes some Muslims agree with and hold those views. And some of them are inspired to commit violence because of these views. Beliefs have consequences. Shocking isn't it. It's quite a modest claim, but many liberals disagree, and one of them is an Aussie-born writer and journalist who's been getting some publicity in the past few years named CJ Werleman.

I first came to know CJ Werleman about a year ago. I first found out about him via YouTube in a speech he gave called What The Corporate Totalitarian State Means for Humanism. At first I liked him. He was a liberal atheist and he espoused the same kind of populist economic views that I hold. I agreed with him that corporate influence in government is too strong and that democracy in the US is fading away into corporatocracy. He seemed like he'd be a great atheist ally for those of us with left-leaning politics.

That is until I found out about his views on Islam. Given his criticism of those on the religious right, I thought he would naturally see Islam for what it really is: an ancient religion that contains many barbaric morals that results in disturbingly large numbers of its followers holding these barbaric morals. But to my surprise, he takes what seems like the standard liberal approach to Islam: that violent Islamists and Jihadists are entirely the result of bad Western foreign policy, and socio-economic factors. According to liberals like Werleman, Islam is never the reason why Jihadists commit acts of terror, or why 90% of Muslims think homosexuality is wrong, or why 23% think stoning to death adulterers should be the law of the land. Although he seems to recognize that Islam contains some barbarism, he doesn't seem to connect the dots that beliefs have consequences.

Werleman is an atheist but not an anti-theist. He just wrote a whole book disparaging anti-theism, which I won't link to here. His views on Islam make him a member of what Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris call the regressive left. Regressive lefties are basically liberals who blame the regressive beliefs of extremist groups like those of radical Islamists entirely on Western imperialism and socio-economic factors. Here's a recent tweet by Werleman espousing this view:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

How To Do Recreational Drugs Responsibly

I just watched Vice's special on our broken prison system where president Obama sat with several convicted felons in a federal prison, the first time ever for a siting president. It was pretty fuckin' good, I have to say. Vice knows how to do some really good reporting. Several inmates were profiled and their situations highlight just how broken America's prison system is. According to the show, about 97 percent of people arrested and charged with non-violent drug offenses plea guilty to lesser sentences because the mandatory minimum laws passed in the 80s and 90s are so stiff. Once you serve your time you'll often actually be charged fees for your public representative and for your parole, putting you in debt. Combine this with the fact that having a felony conviction makes it very difficult to find a job, especially without an education, and it prevents you from applying for food stamps, public housing, or getting federal aid for college, the recidivism rate is 67.8 percent after 3 years. And so the cycle goes on and on and on, generation after generation, and no community is hit harder than the African American community. 

Watching the show reminded me of my life growing up. I was raised by a single mother. I grew up in the inner city - not in the worst of neighborhoods, but definitely not the best. Many of the friends I knew during high school and immediately after were dropouts who often engaged in petty crimes like vandalism, graffiti, and low level drug dealing. When I went to college I stopped hanging out with them and made new friends and took a new path. I now hang out with people who have a much better mindset and I have a good job that affords me a comfortable middle class life. Watching the show made me realize just how good I have it. I am really, really lucky. I cannot stress that enough. I have it ridiculously good compared to so many people. For one thing, I'm a middle class person living in a first world country. Right there I have it better than about 90 percent of the world's population.

That got me thinking. Given how the inmates profiled in the show were convicted of low level drug offenses, I want to offer some advice to the readers out there. I've done plenty of drugs in my life, and I'm not against responsible drug use. I'm a libertarian in the sense that I don't think the state should be telling people what they can and cannot put in their body for the most part. So given this, here is some advice for responsible recreational drug use.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Quote Of The Day: Does Quantum Indeterminacy Allow Free Will?

Today's QOTD is by Caltech physcist Sean Carroll. Many people, theists and atheist alike, think that quantum indeterminacy allows for libertarian free will to take place. But this is a misunderstanding of quantum mechanics and the way probability works in it. On his blog, Carroll explains:

[I]f you want to use the lack of determinism in quantum mechanics to make room for supra-physical human volition (or, for that matter, occasional interventions by God in the course of biological evolution, as Francis Collins believes), then let’s be clear: you are not making use of the rules of quantum mechanics, you are simply violating them. Quantum mechanics doesn’t say “we don’t know what’s going to happen, but maybe our ineffable spirit energies are secretly making the choices”; it says “the probability of an outcome is the modulus squared of the quantum amplitude,” full stop. Just because there are probabilities doesn’t mean there is room for free will in that sense.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Quote Of The Day: Does Consciousness Collapse The Wave Function?

There are so many purveyors of woo-woo out there that it's enough to drive an atheist mad. One of the most common claims is that the famous double slit experiment shows that consciousness collapses the wave function because it seems that observing the quantum particles changes their behavior from waves to particles. This is often used by spiritualists and theists as evidence that there is a soul, because, it is argued, physical reality seems to exist only when we're looking at it, and so the soul must be fundamental.

But most working physicists will tell you that consciousness has nothing to do with wave function collapse, often described as decoherence. Here's a quote from an actual physicist David Simmons-Duffin on what really collapses the wave function:

Decoherence occurs whenever a quantum mechanical system interacts with another system with a large number of degrees of freedom (like a human, or a house cat, or a chair). It has absolutely nothing to do with consciousness, and can be described rigorously from the Schrodinger equation without any extra axioms.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Concerns Of An Atheist Part I

I might be spending too much time making arguments for atheism and critiquing arguments for theism. I should spread out my topic range to include other considerations. One idea is that of some genuine concerns I have as an atheist about religion. These posts would be about what an atheist like myself really worries about regarding religion. So let me entertain one big concern I have.

One major concern I have about religion is in the way it affects how we see morality. Most religious people it seems were always religious to some extent, or they were always theists who believed in at least one god, even if they weren't religious about it. This means that most of these people have no idea what it is really like to be an atheist and to share the type of concerns an atheist would hold including its emotional impact.

Try to picture yourself as an atheist. There is no god. Every religion is completely man-made. You live in a world where you see billions of people adhering to various religions. Many of them say they have their own "interpretation" of the "truth." You can clearly see the falsity of it all, and the nonsense within it. You can recognize that all religions contain some interesting stories and moral lessons. But you can also recognize that much of its morality is outdated and the product of patriarchal societies who wanted to ground order and authority and the best way to do it was in a god. That way the dignitaries of the divine could solidify their authority and exploit the gullibility and superstition of the masses. This is not the only reason why religion developed but it is an important one for some.

So these religions god created. Some of them grew and thrived and evolved. Fast forward thousands of years to the modern world. We're now grappling with the problems of the twenty-first century and many of us still cling to the religions of centuries past. Now you have to try and reason with people who think a god has made the world a certain way, and for a certain purpose, and issued certain commands that hinder progress on certain critical problems. Take climate change. Can you imagine how hard it is to have a conversation on the reality of climate change with someone who thinks the earth is less than 10,000 years old and created by a god who won't let it be destroyed, again? Or take same sex marriage. Can you imagine how hard it is to have a conversation on marriage equality with someone who thinks their god defined marriage as between one man and one woman? Or take violence in general. Can you imagine how hard it is to have a conversation with religious fundamentalists who think it is an honor to kill for the offensive spread of a religion? Even worse is if they believe they'll be rewarded in the afterlife for doing so.

Take a moment to consider that.

Just about every theist can see the falsity of the other religion. Imagine what it's like for people who see your religion as just as false. We atheists can see the ultimate falsity of all religions. So talking to every devout believer is like your experiences talking to the devout members of those you think have a false religion. Can you see how scary it is for the atheist to live in a world with people still believing in superstition?  Can you see how scary it is for the atheist to live in a world with people still believing that demons can possess people and wreak calamity on humankind? This is something that really concerns me. I don't exactly loose sleep over it, but for a secular progressive like myself who really wants to see humankind reach its full potential, few things are scarier than billions of people who believe in superstitious nonsense and who hold to moral views from thousands of years ago who think they were really commanded by a god.

So I hope there are theists our there who will try to see what it's like from an atheist's perspective a little clearer, because many theists haven't got a clue.

How Will People Know What The Morally Perfect Thing To Do Is In Heaven?

In heaven most theists tell me that people will always do the morally right thing in every given situation. But since we all have to learn morality to a certain degree when we're growing up, we aren't born with all of morality's complexities intuitive to us. And in some situations, we might do the morally wrong thing purely out of ignorance, because we might not have been in that situation before.

So how are people in heaven always going to know how to do the morally right thing in every possible situation, even if they have the best of intentions and the purest of hearts? Is god going to beam knowledge of the right thing to do in every situation into our brains like how Keanu Reeves was able to upload knowledge of jujitsu in the Matrix? How else would millions of people know the moral thing to do in millions of different situations from the moment they get into heaven? Or will people have to learn in heaven as we do on earth? If that's true some people might do immoral things in heaven, and that to me seems hard to square with the traditional view that no immorality exists in heaven.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Why the Big Bang Singularity Does Not Help the Kalām Cosmological Argument for Theism

Came across this interesting paper on the big bang and why it doesn't help the most popular argument touted in favor of god, the Kalām Cosmological Argument.


The cosmic singularity provides negligible evidence for creation in the finite past, and hence theism. A physical theory might have no metric or multiple metrics, so a ‘beginning’ must involve a first moment, not just finite age. Whether one dismisses singularities or takes them seriously, physics licenses no first moment. The analogy between the Big Bang and stellar gravitational collapse indicates that a Creator is required in the first case only if a Destroyer is needed in the second. The need for and progress in quantum gravity and the underdetermination of theories by data make it difficult to take singularities seriously. The singularity exemplifies the sort of gap that is likely to be closed by scientific progress, obviating special divine action. The apparent irrelevance of cardinality to practices of counting infinite sets in classical field theory and Fourier analysis is noted.

See the link here: Why the Big Bang Singularity Does Not Help the Kalām Cosmological Argument for Theism

Monday, September 21, 2015

Free Will, Science, And Religion Podcast

On the weekend I participate in a podcast called Free Will, Science, and Religion that talks about, well, free will, science, and religion, and how they all intermingle. Although we're all on the same page that libertarian free will doesn't exist, we differ on many other things. We're not all atheists; at least one of the participants is a pantheist. We differ on politics, like on the topic of abortion. Most are hard determinists/incompatibilists, but I'm the only one a bit sympathetic to compatibilism.

Here is the first episode introducing the podcast:

We've piled through over a hundred episodes, although I haven't participated in most of them. Here is the hundredth episode, on how understanding that we have no free will be the biggest revolution in human history ever.

I'll be listing all the episodes from now on on my blog, maybe not all of them, but I'll have to see how it goes.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Only God can provide an adequate rational foundation for morality and unalienable human rights."

What are rights? Where do they come from?

Claiming rights is very popular. We all claim rights. But on what basis can we do this? A popular view is the idea that "Only God can provide an adequate rational foundation for morality and unalienable human rights." Is this the case? Well, as an atheist, I'm deeply skeptical of these kinds of claims. So let me explore this idea and go over some of the problems I think arise when one tries to ground morality and rights in a deity.

What are rights?

First off, what is a right? Years ago when I studied philosophy I took an introductory course on ethics. I still have my textbook from the class, Human Conduct: Problems of Ethicsby John Hospers. While flipping through it I came across the chapter on human rights. Since human rights are so often talked about with such passion and argument, it's important to know what we mean when we claim a right.

A right, Hospers describes, can be said to be a justified claim to something, in the form of an entitlement. It is to "claim a certain amount of moral space in which others may not trespass." (192) If one has a right, others have an obligation or duty or respect that right. If one has a right to life, and others do not have a duty to refrain from killing you, that right mean little to nothing, and may even be self-contradictory. Rights are not merely privileges. Privileges can be revoked at any time. If I let you borrow my car to run errands, that is a privilege which I can revoke when I want. You don't have a right to use my car when I don't want you to. (This is related to notions of property rights.)

Where do they come from?

This all seems fine and dandy, but it still gives us no notion of where rights come from. Enter the theists who claims that rights are endowed to us by our creator. But what exactly does that explain? Did god implant a "right" within us? If so, what is the ontology of that right? Some theists claim that god gave humans an immortal soul and that it is this that gives us our rights. But how does a soul (whatever that is) give us our rights? If cockroaches have souls would that mean it would be immoral for us to kill them? Would a soul-less person (should one exist) be any less worthy of rights than one with a soul, all other things being equal? The theist might say that it's our soul that gives us sentience—the capacity to suffer, and rationality—the ability to think, deliberate, weigh evidence and alternatives, and decide what actions to take, and that it's these combined traits, unique to human beings, that provides us the rights we have.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

I attended a free screening of a new documentary entitled Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret the other day. It argues that the largest contributor to forest depletion and environmental unsustainability is our consumption of meat and dairy products. That's why I've dramatically reduced my meat consumption over the past few years to almost nothing, with my eventual goal of becoming a vegan. It will be hard, but it can be done. What motivates me, besides the animal cruelty occurring on factory farms, are the facts contained in the documentary about just how bad our consumption of meat and dairy products are having on the environment. See below.

Friday, September 18, 2015

I Have A Political Deal For Social Conservatives

Hey Conservatives,

If you're the kind of conservative that supports forcing a woman watch an ultrasound of her fetus before she's allowed to have an abortion, then maybe we can make a deal. If we allow this, then as a deal, would you support forcing people about to purchase any meat to have to watch this video below before they're allowed to?


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yahweh Is Perfect, Because, You Know...

Sometimes when I argue that Yahweh, the god of the Bible, would be evil if he existed, and is not anything even remotely close to the "greatest conceivable being," the reaction I sometimes get goes down the line of, "God is by definition perfect, and everything he does and commands is morally perfect, and Yahweh is god, and so everything Yahweh does and commands is perfect by definition and any amount of 'reason' you try and use to refute this is totally and utterly futile. Period."

That is in a nutshell the argument that I sometimes get when debating theists over whether Yahweh is good. Formally, it might look like this:

1. God is by definition perfect.
2. Yahweh is God.
3. Therefore, everything Yahweh does and commands is perfect.

Checkmate, atheist!

Now of course this doesn't represent the view all Christians have. And many Christians attempt to justify each of the premises. But even if I grant premise (1) in the same sense that a bachelor is by definition an unmarried man, it is impossible to go from that to premise (2). In fact, I think premise (2) is refuted by premise (1). And so it is frustrating when I encounter Christians quit often who just seem to take as an uncontroversial axiom that Yahweh is morally perfect and that everything Yahweh does and commands is perfect. They fail to step outside their bubble and acknowledge that the axioms they grant inside the bubble, are not granted outside the bubble. It must be demonstrated that Yahweh is morally perfect and that everything Yahweh does and commands is perfect. It is simply not a given.

To The Critics Of Secularism:

Imagine that one day we had a very devout, openly-Christian president, and he or she made policies that were based on their deep religious convictions. And imagine if they believed the end of the world was imminently close, and were crafting policies and making decisions that had really negative long term effects, but didn't care, because they had this deep religious conviction and didn't feel the need to justify it other than by claiming it was their faith. What would you do in that circumstance? Would you really let the president destroy the country and possibly the planet with bad policies that they think wouldn't matter due to their religiously based beliefs? Or would you think that it's reasonable that the law should require that policy that affects millions and billions of people worldwide, require a secular justification that doesn't rely on one's particular religious convictions?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Does Making The World A Better Place Allow Atheists To Kill Two Birds With One Stone?

As much as I'd like to think that it's atheism that's been primarily responsible for the advancement of less-progressive and less-advanced people and societies, I think it's probably the case that the opposite is true: when the standards of living, education, and technology in a society go up, as a result it gets less religious. Lower religiosity is probably a side effect and result of rising living standards and not the other way around.*

The purpose of this blog post however, is not to try and make a case for which way the causality is going. That's not the point. I could be wrong. There could be many other options besides these two that hold the truth, or a complex mixture of many things, as sociologist Phil Zuckerman has argued — I don't know. I have not done a thorough assessment of the data. But I was having a discussion on it recently and it seems to me that the causality probably goes from high living standards → decreasing religiosity (see below).

If that is the case, then the greatest thing I could do as an atheist who wants lower religiosity and cultivate a better society with all the liberal, populist, and progressive views that I hold, is to focus on fighting for all those liberal, populist, and progressive views that I hold.** And it seems that an interesting by-product of that will be that religious belief and practice will continue to decrease year by year, decade by decade, until it's so low and irrelevant for most people, that it's hardly even a factor, and it becomes virtually invisible. That could be a very serious and attainable reality in the not-too-distant future. Instead of focusing mostly on what I'm against and criticizing religion, debating theists, and trying to make a case for atheism and naturalism, I could focus on the political, social, and economic issues I'm for. And if you're an atheist, you could do this too. So you have to consider whether doing this may be a chance to kill two birds with one stone for the secular, liberal, progressive advocate like myself: Destroy what we're against socially, economically, and politically, and we could help destroy religion as a convenient by-product of that. It's a win-win situation!

I do think that a metaphysical case needs to be made and defended for naturalism, and I really do think that it should include beauty and aesthetics. Naturalism can be a very beautiful and poetic worldview, and that is something not often emphasized, especially by me. Atheists are all too often mired in esoteric debate or ridicule of religion and fail to focus on explaining the beauty of their own worldview to others. For many, a godless world is scary, depressing, and pointless. This repelling sensation of disgust blocks many from even entertaining the idea of a fully natural world. I think in this realm that scientific education can help tremendously help one see the intricate beauty of the natural world and our place in it. And I do, personally think it is beautiful and amazing when you really think about it. Religious myths have had their time and place, and many contain beautiful, epic, and poetic stories, as well as some good moral principles. But the true story of our origins and place in the universe given to us by science and reflected upon by philosophy is in every way just as beautiful and epic, and I argue, even more so, because it's true.

*This is sometimes called the existential security thesis (EST) or the socioeconomic security hypothesis (SSH). For more information on the latter see Gregory Paul's paper The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional social conditions.

**By saying this I am not saying that religion is the only or primary factor for what is making the world a worse place and that getting rid of it would magically fix most of the world's problems. I am not trying to set up a dichotomy or anything like that.


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